Justice Thomas writes a compelling and uniquely relevant memoir
It is not easy to make ordinary stories interesting. Sometimes, however, the greater difficulty lies in telling an intrinsically compelling story in such a way as to do it justice, especially if others have claimed to tell that story before. In My Grandfather’s Son, Clarence Thomas succeeds in doing his unique life story just that: justice. Having had his story “told” by so many in the media industry, Thomas sets the record straight with a narrative that—if it weren’t true—would read like a novel, conveying lessons that are as relevant today as when Thomas wrote the book (and in some cases, even more so).
For someone who has been dubbed the “silent justice,” Clarence Thomas can certainly tell a good story. Any book proposing to retell the story of Clarence Thomas faces the a priori challenge not only of meeting the dramatic zenith of his televised confirmation hearings but also of adding something to them. It is obvious from the way the book progresses that Thomas understood this expectation, and he executes to perfection. Without a doubt, the most exhilarating part of the book is the epic confirmation hearing, but its true virtue is that this climactic moment is anticipated in and deepened by every one of the previous two hundred or so pages. From a purely literary perspective, a narrative structure that may originally appear disjointed or jumpy is revealed to be cohesively teleological, as the entirety of Thomas’s life experience factors into the man he became by the time of his famous indictment of the Senate judiciary committee.
Aside from its dramatic high-point, the book’s retelling of Thomas’s unique life communicates a treasure of perennial lessons, several of which have grown in relevance with time.
Through many long hours sowing fields with his grandfather, Thomas learned about the value of work well done. Looking back, he characterizes the many blisters and calluses as part of a larger “metaphor for life—blisters come before calluses, vulnerability before maturity.” Beyond understanding the significance of work well done, Thomas also inherited a sense of his place in the universe, particularly in relation to his Creator. His grandfather had converted to Catholicism in his youth, and the family attended Mass, prayed the rosary, and—to the extent that they could read—read the Bible. This grounding in the spiritual life eventually led Thomas to enter the seminary and discern a vocation to the priesthood.
The book is a testament against the predominant currents of thought in the media and academia which generally assume that blacks ought to agree with progressive agendas on questions of race. Seeing the arrogance of grand theories about race which inform agendas for progressive social engineering, Thomas offers strong rebukes of many progressive policies on race, noting that more often than not, “blacks were being offered up as human sacrifices to the great god of theory.” His critique of progressive dependence on theories about entire racial groups (such as critical race theory), and blindness to the concrete realities of each individual or particular community, is powerful, especially given the recent intensification of disputes about race.
Another equally important, and perhaps more relevant, aspect of the book is its invitation to stand up for one’s beliefs and to lose the fear of expressing them. Once Thomas began receiving pushback for straying from progressive orthodoxy, he recognized that “life … would be so much easier if [he] went along with whatever was popular.” However, with each test of his convictions, Thomas remembers realizing that his principles were “worth [his] life.” As pressure from all angles increased, Thomas attributes his ability to live according to what he believed into strong faith in God and to the detachment from worldly honors that such faith results in. A prayer featured in various parts of the book expresses the nature of this faith: “Lord,” he asks, “grant me the wisdom to know what is right and the courage to do it.” In an era of cancel culture, this prayer and Justice Thomas’s example are perhaps more needed than ever.
One aspect of the book that has undoubtedly taken on more significance than Thomas could have ever imagined is the depiction of Joe Biden. Biden was the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that would conduct Thomas’s Supreme confirmation hearings, and a series of deceptive broken promises from Biden led Thomas to issue the following description:
At Yale, for example, I’d listened often to … a song by the Undisputed Truth that warns of the dangers of trusting the hypocrites who “pretend to be your friend” while secretly planning to do you wrong. Now I knew I’d met one of them: Senator Biden’s smooth, insincere promises that he would treat me fairly were nothing but talk.
As the book illustrates, Biden was involved during the most trying moments of Justice Thomas’ life, looking like the worst kind of politician each time. The fact that he is now the President makes these passages in the book both singularly interesting and conducive to reflection on the current state of politics. These reflections are valuable for those who are too young to remember Biden’s time as a senator, especially when viewed in light of the book’s publication date of 2007—prior to Biden’s terms as Obama’s vice president and as president.
My Grandfather’s Son is not only eminently readable, but contains many powerful messages, several of which are especially relevant today. The book relates an odyssey from the simple world of traditional wisdom to the enlightened world of theory and back again, the result serving as a compelling antidote for a political culture desperately in need of a return to common sense. In writing it, Justice Thomas has taken the narrative of his life back into his own hands, leaving us with a great testimony of what makes for a great life—and, hopefully, with the inspiration to lead one.
Nicolas Abouchedid is The Rover’s editor-in-chief emeritus. He will graduate in 2022 with a degree in philosophy. He is originally from, and hopes to one day return to, Caracas, Venezuela.